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Q&A with Board-Certified Music Therapists

Updated: Mar 8

Happy World Music Therapy Day! Today is the day to celebrate and recognize the power of music therapy. Able ARTS Work board-certified music therapists Kassidy King, Heidi Tulcan, Christina Ebersole, and Bella Christopherson have answered thirteen questions to help you better understand what music therapy actually is, the benefits, and how to become a music therapist.



 

What is Music Therapy?

The short definition I usually tell those who are unfamiliar with Music Therapy is: “using music to achieve non-music goals”. Music Therapy is research-based, clinical, and evidence-based. In my eyes, music therapy is defined as a creative outlet characterized by positivism, healing, and research-based treatment with the potential to be used for all populations in need to reach individualized goals and improve quality of life. -Kassidy King, MT-BC

In addition to what Kassidy said, music therapy is a unique relationship between the client, the music, and the therapist. Through these relationships, clients and therapists work together to achieve non-music goals. Music is inherently therapeutic, but music therapists are trained and certified to use music alongside more traditional means of therapy to create a space for clients to fully express themselves verbally and musically. - Heidi Tulcan, MT-BC

Music therapy is practiced by a trained professional, a board-certified music therapist, where they use music as the main medium to meet the needs and goals of individuals whether that is physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, cognitive/educational, and/or behavioral. Music therapy can benefit individuals from their first breath to the very last, serving every individual of all ages. Music therapy services are often found in schools, hospitals, nursing homes/facilities, mental health facilities, day programs, specialized programs, hospice, rehabilitation facilities and more. - Christina Ebersole, MT-BC


What are the benefits of Music Therapy?

Music Therapy has an extensive and ongoing list of benefits ranging from general wellbeing to physical rehabilitation. Movement can be entrained to rhythm, thus providing the opportunity for populations including those recovering from stroke or diagnosed with diseases of the basal ganglia including Parkinson’s and Huntington’s to regain and improve affected motor skills. Music has also been proven to be one of the most powerful elicitors of memory, due to its anatomical ties to memory areas in the brain. Thus, music can be used to elicit memories lost from dementia and exercise the brain to delay progress. Due to its aesthetically pleasing and motivating characteristics, music can be used to improve attention and build basic cognitive skills in children and teenagers with developmental delay and intellectual disabilities. These components can also help individuals with autism spectrum disorder and Down syndrome to improve speech and communication skills, ultimately enhancing social skills. In a psychiatric setting, music can lift the mood of individuals diagnosed with major depressive disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder and promote emotional and self-expression mainly through song-discussion, improvisation, and composition interventions. Music provides a creative and functional outlet for music therapists to teach basic life skills and positive social behavior. -Kassidy King, MT-BC



Do you need to be musical in order to benefit from Music Therapy?

Nope! You do not need any musical background, or to be proficient in an instrument to benefit from music therapy. Music Therapy is made accessible to any person that has a love or interest in music. Music therapy sessions are not the same as music lessons. There is no expectation to becoming a proficient musician, or to even learn an instrument (unless that is something the client expresses interest in and benefits towards their goals). However, I find that many people who express that they are “not a musician” or “not musical” are often times surprised by how musical they truly are. – Bella Christopherson, MT-BC


What are some examples of Music Therapy activities or interventions?

Some of the popular interventions and activities include instrument playing, singing, moving to music, songwriting, music recording, lyric analysis, drumming, musical games and more! - Christina Ebersole, MT-BC


What does a typical Music Therapy session look like?

The beauty of music therapy, and really any therapy, is that there is no rigid plan as to what will take place. Depending on the community that a music therapist works alongside, the session can begin and end with a hello and goodbye song. This sets the tone for the session and allows the group to enter the musical bubble with one another. This can also be a great musical way to check in with each client and appraise how they are doing at the moment. The music therapist will usually have a mental map of where the session will go including a beginning, middle and end. This will often change on the spot with how clients are reacting and the music therapist will have them take the lead. Generally, you can expect some form of music to take place whether it be recreating a piece of music, musically improvising, creating lyrics, or even passive listening. - Heidi Tulcan, MT-BC

The way that I try to structure my MT sessions are often times built off of themes, and always built off of my client's preferences and goals. I believe repetition is key to learning, therefore I try to create routine sessions with my clients so that it is always clear what to expect. As Heidi mentioned above, sessions often change and do not go exactly according to plan. Based off of what my clients need in that particular moment, shifts are made and the schedule/plan is adjusted to support their needs. Typically, a routine session for my clients will look like this: Hello Song, Warm up activities (vocal/breathing exercises, stretching, or movement interventions), active music making/song sharing/making musical choices/passive listening, instrument song (to work on motor skills and following directions), and back to active music making before a goodbye song! The more demanding interventions that require attention and cognitive functions will often be placed in the middle of my session so that my clients have successful and predictable opportunities before and after the hard work! -Bella Christopherson, MT-BC


Can non-music therapists incorporate music into their practice?

Music is widely used all over the world and anyone has the freedom to utilize music for various purposes. Different types of music are used to elicit various responses and emotions in these settings. With that said, it is possible for non-music therapists to use music in their practice. Depending on HOW the music is utilized, the answer to this question could drastically change. Music can elicit positive emotions and responses but it can also trigger memories and emotions attached to trauma which can be quite harmful if used haphazardly. Therefore, when considering the use of music in a non-music therapy setting, the practitioner should consult a trained music therapist beforehand. - Christina Ebersole, MT-BC



Why did you decide to become a Music Therapist?

I have always loved the idea of a profession that seamlessly fuses my passion for music with my love of science, psychology, and people. My passion for songwriting was the specific stem of my interest in music therapy. This is because songwriting became my own therapy— a consistent reliable escape from any hardship I experience. It gives me the power to take any negative situation and transform it into a sentimental piece of art that others can hopefully listen to and connect with. -Kassidy King, MT-BC

I started college as a violin performance major after a long debate between this and psychology. After about 3 years of my undergraduate work, I realized that I wanted my music to reach more than those in the audience. I thought for a while and eventually spoke with a counselor to change my major to psychology in order to get into a helping profession. During this time, she shared about music therapy and the fact that it is an equal balance between my two ideal majors. I found a school in my state and immediately applied for the upcoming semester. - Heidi Tulcan, MT-BC


How do you become a Music Therapist?

Any individual who completes an approved college music therapy program in addition to a 6-month clinical internship can become a professional music therapist. You can become a board-certified music therapist by passing the board-certification exam after completing your college program and internship. -Kassidy King, MT-BC


Becoming a music therapist can be broken down into two parts—the music and the therapy. The music portion encompasses the individual's knowledge, background, and training in music as all music therapists are skilled and trained musicians in single or multiple instruments. A professional music therapist is often found to be proficient in piano, guitar, and voice as they are the primary instruments used in music therapy. In addition to being a musician of some sort, an aspiring music therapist often has the passion and desire to work with people and help them connect to the world around them. This is how the therapy portion is exercised as it is an integral part of music therapy. In short, a musician who has a heart for people would be a great candidate as a music therapist. - Christina Ebersole, MT-BC


Where can a Music Therapist Work?

Music therapists find work in schools, hospitals, nursing homes/facilities, mental health facilities, day programs, specialized programs, hospices, rehabilitation facilities and more. - Christina Ebersole, MT-BC



What are some of the most important skills to have as a Music Therapist?

Many skills required to be a music therapist can be learned and developed during academic training. However, two things that are of absolute importance are the love for people and the passion for music. Without that, it is difficult to practice music therapy effectively. As much as one should love and be invested in people’s growth, it is important for music therapists to excel in their musical skills and the understanding of the impact music has on individuals. It is my own personal philosophy that in “music therapy” the term “music” proceeds “therapy”, therefore the music must be excellent in order for the therapy to be effective for the individual’s growth. However, without genuine care for people and helping them connect to the world around them, a skilled musician is also ineffective. Therefore, it is vital for a music therapist to have a genuine sense of love and care for individuals while sharpening their musical skills. - Christina Ebersole, MT-BC


What is your favorite part of being a Music Therapist?

My favorite part of being a music therapist is the connections and relationships that I get to build with clients. I think that building a relationship through music is very unique, because in our sessions we can highlight and work with the clients strengths, while also addressing therapeutic goals in a fun, playful, and non-invasive way. It is always inspiring to me to watch my clients light up and have different types of experiences and responses from music. – Bella Christopherson, MT-BC


What is some advice you would give to someone thinking of becoming a Music Therapist?

This is a field that you have to be passionate about in order to succeed. The schooling is long and difficult, the internship can be grueling and the pay is often lower than what one would think. You are giving so much of yourself to others in sessions. Prior to this, music may have been a personal experience and now it is something that is shared with many others. The burnout rate in the profession is quite high due to all of these demands. It is something that you really need to want to do, and you need to have a supervision group or support system and a self-care plan in place. - Heidi Tulcan, MT-BC


What are some good tips to help manage stress?

Listening to your favorite music! Music speaks volumes and allows us to put words to our feelings. Depending on the season in your life, you may notice that your musical taste has changed or you discovered your new favorite song. It is important to take notice of that and validate yourself by listening to the song, chanting or singing the song. Maybe take a walk on the beach or at a place where you find solitude and peace while listening to your favorite song. This type of exercise allows you to process your thoughts and feelings which can help you destress. - Christina Ebersole, MT-BC


[Learn more self-care tips from therapists]




 

We hope you learned more about the power of Music Therapy and its benefits this World Music Therapy Day. If you are interested in participating in music therapy, feel free to contact us at info@ableartswork.org . Able ARTS Work also has a Music Therapy Internship available.




Want to learn about Art Therapy? Read this Q&A by a board-certified Art Therapist and LPCC.

 

Able ARTS Work is a California non-profit that for almost 40 years has been providing arts based educational and therapeutic services to adults with disabilities. Learn more about Able ARTS Work’s programs here.

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